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A Guide to Wildlife Viewing in Denali National Park

Venture into the heart of Alaska’s wilderness with our comprehensive guide to wildlife viewing in Denali National Park. It is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers alike. It is home to a diverse range of animals, including 39 mammal species, 169 bird species, 14 fish species, and more. Denali is a treasure trove of natural wonders. We tell you the best spots for observing wildlife in Denali National Park, when and how to spot Denali’s Big Five, and how to prepare for wildlife viewing adventure in Denali. What is the best way to see wildlife in Denali National Park? Check out our tips.

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caribou in fall scenery -wildlife viewing in denali national park

Wildlife Viewing in Denali National Park – Our Experiences

As a couple with a shared passion for landscape and wildlife photography, we’ve been drawn to the wild, untamed beauty of Denali National Park. In Alaska’s heart, Denali has been a sanctuary for us. It is one of the best places to see wildlife in Alaska. We have been to Denali several times.

We’ve traversed Denali’s vast tundra, hiked its rugged trails, and spent nights under its star-studded sky, on the Denali campground, with the sounds of the wilderness. We also did flightseeing over Denali with a glacier landing while visiting Talkeetna.

This guide is based on our experiences, a collection of our insights from the wildlife and landscapes of Denali. We hope this guide will help you navigate Denali’s wilderness.

Despite several visits to Denali, we still don’t have pictures of all the animals we’d like to photograph, and many of the ones we’ve taken are far from perfect. Wildlife in Denali teaches patience and humility. Thanks to these few visits, we learned a lot about animals in Denali National Park and, their behaviors, their favorite spots in the Park, and we share our knowledge with you.

wildlife viewing in Denali National Park huge moose between trees

Planning Your Wildlife Viewing in Denali National Park

If you plan to observe wildlife in Denali National Park, we have a variety of articles that can assist you in planning your adventure. Take a look at:

Agnes with her camera while hiking and photographing wildlife in Denali
Chris photographing Denali during hike

Getting Around Denali for Wildlife Viewing

Navigating Denali National Park for wildlife viewing requires some planning due to the park’s unique transportation policies. The park’s main road, known as the Denali Park Road, stretches 92 miles from east to west. However, private vehicles are only allowed to drive up to Mile 15, known as the Savage River checkpoint, during the high season (mid-May to mid-September). Beyond this point, access is restricted to park-operated buses to minimize environmental impact and ensure the safety of wildlife. Another option for wildlife viewing in Denali is hiking, camping, and backpacking.

Through 2024, buses will travel no further than Mile 43 of the 92-mile-long Denali Park Road.

So, what is the best way to see wildlife in Denali National Park? Consider options:

Tour Buses and Transit Buses for Wildlife Viewing in Denali

The park offers various bus services that cater to different visitor needs. The narrated tour buses and non-narrated transit buses are the most popular for wildlife viewing.

The tour buses, such as the Tundra Wilderness Tour, provide a guided experience with a trained naturalist who shares information about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife. These tours offer several departures each day and range in duration from four to eight hours. It’s a perfect idea if you have limited time for your visit. We can recommend this bus tour from our own experiences. It’s the best way to see wildlife in Denali. Tour buses are tan-colored. 

The non-narrated transit buses are a more flexible option. They are cheaper and have a green color. They allow you to get off the bus to hike, picnic, view wildlife and then catch a later bus to continue your journey or return to the park entrance. This hop-on, hop-off system allows more time in areas where wildlife has been spotted. However, re-boarding is on a seat-available basis. We used transit buses when we camped in Denali. And it was also a great solution if you have more time for your visit to Denali.

green transit bus in Denali
tan-colored tour bus with mountains backdrop in Denali

Both types of buses travel deep into the park, providing excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing. The buses are high enough to allow for good viewing over the low shrubs of the tundra, and the slow pace of travel is conducive to spotting wildlife. Remember to bring binoculars or a camera with a good zoom lens for the best viewing experience.

Booking your bus trip in advance is highly recommended, especially during the peak summer months. Remember that bus operations are weather-dependent and can be affected by road conditions.

landscape in Denali National Park - yellow meadow in the sun and fog covering the mountains

Exploring Denali Wildlife Beyond the Buses

While buses are a popular choice for exploring Denali, there are several other ways to immerse yourself in the park’s wildlife-rich landscapes.

Hiking trails with wildlife-watching opportunities in Denali

Denali National Park offers a variety of hiking trails that provide excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing.

  • The Savage River Loop Trail (Mile 15) is a popular choice, offering the chance to spot Dall sheep, caribou, and even grizzly bears.
  • The Horseshoe Lake Trail (Mile 1) is a great place to look for beavers.
  • The Mount Margaret Trail (Mile 15) and Mount Wright Trail (Mile 22) are known for Dall sheep sightings.

Always remember to maintain a safe distance from wildlife when hiking.

Agnes with her camera hiking wilderness in Denali
Chris with camera hiking in Denali in fall colors

Camping in Denali to observe wildlife

Staying at one of the park’s six campgrounds can provide a unique wildlife viewing experience. To get to your campground, you must take Camper Bus. The campgrounds, which range from Mile 0.25 (Riley Creek) to Mile 85 (Wonder Lake), are often visited by various wildlife. Moose are commonly seen near the park entrance and Riley Creek Campground, while Wonder Lake Campground is known for its birdlife and occasional moose and caribou sightings. We camped for a few nights in Igloo Creek Campground on Mile 43 and spotted moose and bears in its area.

Backpacking for wildlife encounters in Denali

For the more adventurous, obtaining a permit for backpacking in the park’s wilderness areas can lead to incredible wildlife encounters. This option best suits experienced backpackers who are comfortable navigating remote and rugged terrain. Remember, backpacking in Denali is a true wilderness experience, and it’s essential to be prepared and follow all park regulations to ensure your safety and wildlife protection.

Lodging inside the Park for spotting animals

A few lodges within the park boundaries offer comfortable accommodations and excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. The Denali Backcountry Lodge, located at the end of Denali Park Road, provides guided wildlife viewing and photography tours. Similarly, the Kantishna Roadhouse, located deep within the park, offers wildlife viewing excursions and is known for its sightings of the ‘Big Five.’

They are expensive (prices start at $1250 a night and often require a minimum stay of 3 nights). If you’re looking for a cheaper option, see our suggestions on where to stay near the entrance to Denali.

Agnes in Wonder Lake Campground in Denali
Chris on Igloo Creek Campground

Denali’s Big Five: A Wildlife Spectacle

Denali National Park is renowned for its “Big Five” – moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and wolves. These animals are the most sought after by visitors, but remember that wildlife movements are unpredictable, and sightings always depend on a degree of luck.

Our experiences: Despite several visits, we haven’t been lucky enough to spot wolves in Denali. And Dall sheep were so far away that even with a telephoto lens, we could not take a picture of them. They look like tiny white dots on the rocks. Most often, we met moose and caribou. We often also saw grizzly bears, but they were usually higher.

Moose: The Forest Giants

Moose are most likely to be seen in the first 15 miles of Park Road, as they prefer forested and shrubby habitats. Moose are commonly seen near the park entrance in the spring, sometimes even in the Denali Visitor Center campus and the Riley Creek Campground. During fall, moose tend to gather around Miles 9 to 13 of Park Road for their mating season.

Moose are the largest members of the deer family, with males (bulls) weighing up to 1,600 pounds. They are solitary animals, with bulls and cows generally coming together only during the mating season. Moose are excellent swimmers, and they can be seen wading in lakes and ponds, feeding on aquatic plants.

Photography Tip: Moose are most active during dawn and dusk. Use a telephoto lens to capture them from a safe distance. Be patient and wait for the moose to naturally display interesting behavior, like feeding or wading in water.

moose in ponds in fall colors

Caribou: The Tundra Travelers

Caribou prefer the open tundra. They are often seen in alpine areas such as Highway Pass and Thoroughfare Pass, though they are sometimes seen closer to the entrance around Savage River at Mile 15. In Denali, caribou are often spotted in small groups, though herds of 100+ occasionally gather.

Caribou, also known as reindeer, are the only deer species where males and females grow antlers. They have a unique adaptation to survive in the harsh Arctic winters – their noses warm up the cold air before it reaches their lungs.

Photography Tip: Caribou are often on the move, so be ready to take action shots. Use a fast shutter speed to capture sharp images of these fast-moving animals.

caribou in Denali in fall colors

Dall Sheep: The Mountain Dwellers

Dall sheep prefer steep, mountainous habitats. They can sometimes be seen high in Igloo Canyon mountains, approximately Miles 34 – 38 of Park Road. Dall sheep are occasionally spotted along the road near Polychrome, specifically at Mile 45. Hikers have glimpsed them on the Savage Loop and Savage Alpine trails. Also, while hiking off-trail on Mount Margaret (Mile 15) and Mount Wright (Mile 22).

Dall sheep are known for their curved, yellowish-brown horns. Males, or rams, use their impressive horns in head-butting contests to establish dominance during the mating season.

Photography Tip: Dall sheep are often found on steep slopes. A good telephoto lens is essential for capturing these animals without disturbing them. Look for opportunities to photograph them against the backdrop of Denali’s stunning landscapes.

Yes, those tiny white dots on the rocks are Dall sheep. Please don’t laugh at us. We know it’s nothing to brag about. But we want to show you the reality. This is what wildlife viewing looks like in Denali National Park. This is not a zoo where animals will approach your camera themselves. Sometimes you can get lucky and spot the Big Five in Denali one day and take great pictures. And sometimes it takes many tries to succeed.

Dall sheep from the distance
Dall sheep on rocks from a huge distance

Grizzly Bears: The Tundra Titans

Grizzly bears prefer the open tundra and are most commonly seen between Igloo Canyon (Mile 37) and Eielson (Mile 66). They are often seen in high-alpine areas, like Sable Pass, Highway Pass, Thoroughfare Pass, and along rivers. Although grizzly bears are more prevalent in the western region, they occasionally appear in the Savage River valley at mile 15. Denali is also a habitat for black bears, but their sightings are infrequent, primarily due to their preference for densely wooded environments near the beginning and end of Park Road.

Grizzly bears are powerful predators. But much of their diet consists of berries, roots, and insects. They have an excellent sense of smell. Grizzly bears can detect food from miles away, so check how to behave in bears’ country. Denali is home to 350 grizzly bears.

Our Tip: Before heading to Denali, be sure to check out the park’s official staying safe in grizzly country guidelines. Also, pack a bear spray, and learn how to use it.

grizzly bear in Denali in September

We spotted grizzly bears in this Park several times. But Denali bears were usually far away from us. This park is one of the best places for bear viewing in Alaska. But our number one in Alaska for spotting brown bears in their natural habitat is Brooks Falls in Katmai and Lake Clark. We were able to take great pictures there, and we were much closer to the bears.

Photography Tip: Never approach a bear for a photo. Use a telephoto lens and maintain a safe distance. Early morning and late evening light can provide a beautiful glow to your bear photos.

three grizzly bears mama bear and two cubs on rocks in Denali
Denali grizzly bears on rocks - mama bear and cubs

Wolves: The Elusive Predators

Wolves are known to be the most difficult to spot out of the Big Five. We haven’t spotted them yet despite several visits to Denali. Sightings vary widely yearly, depending mainly on where wolf packs are denning each summer. If no wolf packs have dens near Park Road, wolf sightings may be infrequent.

Wolves are social animals and live in packs. They communicate with each other using a complex system of howls, barks, growls, and whines. Wolves play a crucial role in maintaining the ecosystem’s health by controlling the population of other animals, especially large herbivores.

Photography Tip: Photographing wolves requires patience and luck. If you spot them, try to capture their social interactions, which can make for compelling images.

wildlife viewing in Denali National Park - caribou in fall colors with mountains in background

Beyond the Big Five: Other Denali Wildlife

In addition to the Big Five, Denali National Park is home to various other animals. In various locations, you can spot smaller mammals such as foxes, snowshoe hares, and red squirrels. However, marmots and pika are only found in rocky sections of mountains. To see different types of smaller mammals, Savage River (Mile 15) is a great area to explore. If you’re lucky, you may also see beavers in Horseshoe Lake (Mile 1) or the many ponds near Wonder Lake (Mile 85).

Photography Tip: For smaller mammals, try getting to their level for a more intimate portrait.

ground arctic squirrel on grass in summer in Denali

Feathered Friends: Bird Watching in Denali National Park

The bird life of Denali is varied and impressive. In the park, you may come across some of the largest avifauna, such as golden eagles and the rare bald eagles that often pass through. Additionally, ravens, mew gulls, gray jays, and ptarmigan are commonly seen. If you venture between Mile 70 and Wonder Lake (Mile 85), you’ll find a much wetter area with numerous ponds where you can spot waterfowl.

Photography Tip: A fast shutter speed for bird photography will help capture clear images of birds in flight.

bald eagle on the sky

The Best Spots for Wildlife Viewing in Denali National Park

  • Savage River Area (Mile 15): This area is great for viewing caribou, moose, and Dall sheep.
  • Teklanika River (Mile 30): This location is a good place to see grizzly bears, especially in the early morning or late evening.
  • Igloo Creek Campground (Mile 43): On this campground area (we stayed there for a few nights), you can spot grizzly bears, moose, and Dall sheep.
  • Polychrome Overlook (Mile 46): This overlook is great for viewing Dall sheep and grizzly bears. It’s also a good place to see golden eagles.
  • Toklat River (Mile 53): This area is a good place to see grizzly bears, caribou, and wolves.
  • Stony Hill Overlook (Mile 62): This spot is known for seeing wolves and migrating birds.
  • Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66): This visitor center is great for seeing grizzly bears, caribou, and Dall sheep.
  • Wonder Lake (Mile 85): This lake is a good place to see moose, especially in the early morning or late evening.
  • Horseshoe Lake: This is a great place to see beavers. You’ll be thrilled to see the beavers when you hike to Horseshoe Lake in the park’s entrance area.

Our Tip: Check the official park website for more information about animals in Denali.

wildlife viewing in Denali - huge moose with antlers on the fall scenery

The Best Time of Day to See Wildlife in Denali National Park

The best time of day to see wildlife in Denali National Park is during the early morning and late evening hours. Many animals, including the moose, are most active during these quieter times of the day. Dawn and dusk are particularly favorable times for wildlife viewing. Bus trips in Denali can take anywhere from 4 to 13 hours. As a result, most buses travel during both the warm midday hours and the cooler morning or evening hours. Therefore, any time you are on a bus can be a good time to spot wildlife.

wildlife viewing in Denali National Park - two huge moose walking between trees

What is the Best Month to See Wildlife in Denali National Park?

The best months to see wildlife in Denali National Park are from late spring to early fall, specifically from May to September. During these months, the weather is mild, daylight is plentiful, and all tours and accommodations are open.

From our experience, we can recommend the beginning of September, when beautiful fall golden colors have already enveloped the park. Even if we didn’t have the opportunity to photograph all the animals, the autumn weather made up for it.

As for Denali’s “Big Five” – moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and wolves – they can potentially be spotted throughout these months. However, their visibility can depend on various factors, including their mating and migration patterns, weather conditions, and food availability. For example, moose tend to be more visible in the fall during the rut, while caribou may be more visible in the spring and summer when they migrate to their calving grounds. Wolves are the most elusive, and their sightings can vary widely.

Wildlife in Denali National Park - moose in water in ponds on sunny day

However, each season in Denali offers its unique landscape and wildlife viewing opportunities:

  • Mid-May to Early June: This is a great time to visit Denali. The park is less crowded, and many animals are active as they leave their winter hiding.
  • June and July: These months offer great weather, averaging in the mid-60s, and long periods of daylight (up to 24 hours in June). This is when the park is in full bloom, and wildlife is busy roaming, exploring, feeding, playing, and soaking up the warmth.
  • Late July and Early August: This period is the peak of the summer season. The park is teeming with life, and wildflowers are in full bloom.
  • Mid-August to Mid-September: As the season transitions into fall, the weather starts to cool, and the park’s foliage changes. This is also when the moose rutting season begins, making it an exciting time for wildlife viewing.
light and shadow on mountain landscape in Denali

The Best Denali National Park Wildlife Tours

For those looking to spot wildlife in Denali, taking a bus trip into the park is one of the best options. The duration of the trip can vary. But typically lasts between 6 to 12 hours, with stops along the way to observe wildlife, take in scenic views, and use restrooms every 90 minutes.

Compared to a regular vehicle, you’ll sit higher and have a better view over roadside obstacles. Plus, with more people on board, you’ll have more eyes scanning in different directions. A skilled driver will navigate the winding Park Road, which can be difficult in some areas as it skirts the mountainside. This allows you to enjoy the scenery and watch for animals.

Keep in mind that buses in Denali only run in the summer season, from around mid-May to mid-September. If you visit outside of these dates, you may have limited access to certain park areas and may have a more challenging time spotting wildlife. Also, remember that Denali Park can only be reached by private car up to mile 15. Beyond this mile, buses are mandatory.

Our Experiences: We have tried the Denali route by bus multiple times and found it the best option. Skilled drivers can easily spot and identify animals, as they are familiar with their usual habitats and behaviors. We witnessed more wildlife in Denali on the bus tour compared to when we went on hikes in the park. We highly suggest this choice.

Denali wildlife - moose with great antlers

Respecting Wildlife

While the thrill of spotting a grizzly bear or a herd of caribou can be the highlight of your visit to Denali, it’s crucial to remember that we are guests in their home. Always keep a safe distance from any wildlife. Generally, you are too close if your presence causes an animal to change its behavior. Also, never feed wildlife, as doing so can negatively impact their health, alter their natural behaviors, and make them vulnerable to predators and other dangers. Also, remember to follow the seven principles of leaving no trace in Denali National Park.

denali wildlife - squirrel on the rock

Landscape Photography in Denali

Denali National Park is also a landscape photographer’s dream. With its towering mountains, sweeping valleys, and ever-changing weather, the park offers endless opportunities for capturing stunning images. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a hobbyist with a smartphone, Denali’s landscapes will not disappoint.

The park’s most iconic feature is, of course, Denali itself. Standing at 20,310 feet, it’s the highest peak in North America. On a clear day, the sight of this majestic mountain is simply breathtaking. But even when Denali is shrouded in clouds, the park’s landscapes offer plenty of photographic potential.

The vast tundra, dotted with colorful wildflowers in the summer, turns into a sea of reds and oranges in the fall. The braided rivers, glacial valleys, and alpine meadows offer unique charm. And let’s not forget the dramatic skies – from the soft pastel hues of the midnight sun in summer to the vibrant colors of the aurora borealis in winter.

mountain landscape in Denali

Photography Tips for Landscape in Denali

  • Work with the Weather: Don’t be discouraged by overcast skies or misty conditions. These can add mood and drama to your Denali landscape images. Rain can bring out the vibrant colors of the landscape, while fog can create a sense of mystery and depth.
  • Golden Hours: Like wildlife photography, the best light for landscape photography is often during the golden hours around sunrise and sunset. This is when the light is soft and warm, casting long shadows and bringing out the textures of the landscape.
  • Composition: Use the rule of thirds to create balanced and interesting compositions. Try to include a foreground element, like a colorful patch of wildflowers or a winding river, to add depth to your image.
  • Perspective: Don’t just stick to eye-level shots. Try different perspectives – get low to the ground, climb a hill, or use a drone (where permitted) to capture unique landscape views.
  • Patience: Landscape photography requires patience. Wait for the light to change, the clouds to move, and the perfect moment. Remember, you’re not just taking a picture; you’re telling a story about this incredible place.
light and shadows on the mountains

Flora and Geology of Denali

Denali National Park is not just about wildlife but also fascinating for plant and geology enthusiasts. The park is home to over 650 species of flowering plants, including the beautiful fireweed, Alaska’s state flower. Denali’s landscape consists of forests at lower elevations which include deciduous taiga. Tundra can be found at middle elevations, while glaciers, rock, and snow are present at the highest elevations

The park’s geology is equally impressive, with the towering peaks of the Alaska Range, including North America’s highest peak, Denali, standing at a majestic 20,310 feet. The park is also a great place to learn about permafrost, a layer of frozen soil that plays a crucial role in the Arctic ecosystem.

Photography Tip: The flora of the park, especially wildflowers, can also be a great backdrop when photographing landscapes and wildlife in Denali National Park. Focus on details.

Denali National Park Wildlife – Final Thoughts

Denali National Park is more than just a destination; it’s an experience, a journey into the heart of the wild. From the thrill of spotting a grizzly bear in the open tundra to the awe of witnessing the majestic Denali bathed in the soft glow of the midnight sun, every moment in this park is an opportunity for discovery and wonder.

As passionate wildlife and landscape photographers, we’ve found endless inspiration in Denali’s diverse landscapes and inhabitants. We’ve learned that patience, respect for nature, and understanding wildlife behavior are crucial to capturing compelling images. We’ve also known that every weather condition, every season, and every time of day brings a new chance to capture the unique beauty of this wild and pristine place.

Through this guide, we’ve shared our knowledge and experiences, hoping to inspire and equip you for your adventures in Denali. Whether photographing the “Big Five,” exploring the park’s flora and geology, or capturing the dramatic landscapes, remember to take a moment to breathe in the crisp air, listen to the sounds of the wilderness, and immerse yourself in the experience. After all, the true beauty of Denali lies not just in the images you take home but in the memories you make and the connection you forge with this extraordinary place.

mountain landscape snowy peaks in Denali National Park

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